Turnabout and Fair Play

As I was watching a news broadcast last night, a commercial came on that featured PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. As anyone who is professionally engaged in the important biomedical advances that have come through the use of animal research would have been, I was immediately eager to see what kind of spin PETA had cooked up for their commercial. (And as anyone who thinks the ethical treatment of animals should be advocated seriously and responsibly, I simultaneously hoped to hear, for once, something sensible from PETA.)

But the advertisement turned out to be not for, but rather against, PETA: The opening image of a young girl holding a tabby cat is transformed as the word “ethical” expands to overtake the screen. Zoom in on the girl’s eye; fade to black and white; enter images of animal rights extremists vandalizing property and physically assaulting police. The caption Bruce Friedrich, PETA Campaign Director appears as a male voice-over declares,

“Of course, as a movement, we’re going to be blowing stuff up and smashing windows… I think it would be great if all of the fast-food outlets, slaughterhouses, these laboratories, and the banks that fund them, exploded tomorrow.”

Closing image: “PETA: As warm and cuddly as you thought? For more information, visit AnimalScam.com” (You can view the commercial if you visit the Web site.)

Who was responsible for so brazenly challenging the anti-science rhetoric of PETA? Not a biomedical association, nor any kind of (explicitly) science-lobbying group. The commercial was sponsored by the Center for Consumer Freedom, whose Web site describes its organization as “a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies, and consumers working together to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.”

I have to admit that I was disappointed that AnimalScam.com was not the brainchild of an organization with a fundamental interest in objective information for the express purpose of advancing science (as opposed to advancing consumerism). Within a medium that so greatly influences public opinion, the commercial was very effective—and right on target, if somewhat derivative of advertisements that we’ve seen from the realm of politics, in its aim to expose PETA’s hypocrisy and just plain weirdness. (PETA President Ingrid Newkirk, for example, solidly links the emergence of disease to a meat-inclusive diet: “The battle against SARS and other diseases begins with your fork.”)

I don’t know—maybe the very objectivity that is supposed to characterize science prevents scientists from impassioned and public arguments of the sort that I had anticipated last night as the anti-PETA commercial got underway. Maybe the best I can hope for is a well-produced commercial on occasion from the American Cancer Society or Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or a thoughtfully controversial letter or two to the editor of scientific publications. (Dear reader, you may regard this as a hint.)

Still, wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear that a group of biomedical scientists were expected to appear—with just a picket sign or two—at the annual Animals Rights Conference? (Mark your calendar: June 27–July 2, 2003, at the McLean Hilton Hotel in McLean, Virginia.)

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